A call sets it off.
One of Kansas’ two foster care contractors learns another child has landed in state custody. It has four hours to pick the kid up.
Workers phone other child placement agencies listing the specific needs for a particular child. Family members are found and called.
If the contractor is picking up a school-aged kid, workers will call the school to get information about teachers, coaches or parents of friends who might take them. Older kids can offer their own suggestions about nearby family members. If those options don’t pan out, contractors look for shelters and group homes.
But almost a year and a half ago, placement workers started coming up empty. That’s how children ended up on couches, futons and cots in contractor offices across the state.
“I’ve been doing this for 17 years ... I had not spent the night in the office with a child — ever,” said Danielle Bartelli, president of eastern Kansas contractor KVC Kansas and a former social worker with the company.
Of all the headlines about foster care in the past year — missing kids, children harmed while in state custody, shredded documents in the state child welfare agency — it’s news about children sleeping in offices that foster care administrators say showed just how overwhelmed the state system had become.
The basic problem is just too few beds and far too many kids who need them.
Kansas isn’t alone. Foster care systems across the country are seeing a spike in children entering care, which many states attribute to families being ripped apart by the opioid crisis.
Drugs may also be a factor in the Kansas bump, though policymakers say Kansas hasn’t seen the worst of the opioid crisis. That could mean the Kansas foster care crisis gets worse before it gets better.
At the same time, some of the services intended to wrap around struggling families or kids within their own communities have taken a hit.
Changes to state welfare policies have dramatically cut the number of people receiving assistance, which some suggest is a factor in increasing foster care numbers. The Department for Children and Families disputes that connection.
Even in a system such as the one in Kansas — where the raw number of beds across foster homes, psychiatric facilities, shelters and group homes is close to the number of kids entering foster care — not all kids can be placed right away.
A 10-year-old boy might need care in a psychiatric residential treatment facility, but perhaps the only open beds are for girls. There might be a foster bed right in a teenage girl’s school district, but a teenage boy is sleeping in the room’s other bed — teenagers of the opposite gender can’t share a room.
With the sheer number of kids coming in, that’s likely to happen more often. So contractors are left with no better option other than an office couch, and kids feeling unwanted.
“Kids who are in the child welfare system are already struggling with not feeling like they belong,” said Christie Appelhanz, president of the nonprofit Children’s Alliance. “It sends a message when kids are sleeping in offices that there isn’t a place for them.”
The trend in overnight stays began for KVC Kansas in September of 2016. St. Francis Community Services, the western contractor, saw its first child sleep overnight in an office in February 2017.
From there, it grew — and it’s still growing. Last fiscal year, 108 kids slept in contractor offices. This fiscal year, with four months left to go, that number is already up to 167.
Most stayed one night, though a handful stayed two or three, or, this month, five. So far, 20 children have stayed in an office overnight in February.
Kansas repeatedly set records for the number of children in foster care over the last five years. More than 7,200 kids landed in out-of-home placements as of December 2017, up 43 percent from the same time in 2012.
Many of Kansas’ foster kids come into the system because of trauma. Some respond by acting out in ways that make it unsafe to put them with other children. They need the more intensive supervision of a residential treatment center or a psychiatric facility.
Many of the kids crashing on couches fall into that high-needs category.
Some had been physically or sexually aggressive. Some had landed in the juvenile justice system.
From January through June last year, KVC Kansas had at least two kids stay in its office who needed psychiatric care, but no residential treatment facility had room. St. Francis saw much of the same pattern.
Some were older kids or sibling groups, which contractors can have a tougher time placing.
"We never want a kid to be in the office,” said Lindsey Stephenson, KVC Kansas’ vice president. “That’s always our very last option.”
The fact that it was the only option 230 times in 2017 puts contractors in a tough spot. They want to make kids as comfortable as possible when they stay in offices overnight — but putting in beds or setting up the offices as full shelters would mean surrendering to the idea that it’s become the new normal.
Though the places these kids are staying are standard offices — desks, computers, ringing phones, filing cabinets — they’re also set up with kids in mind. Both KVC Kansas and St. Francis are accustomed to having kids in their offices for supervised family visits, or for meetings with social workers, or even while they’re waiting for placement during the day.
Kids staying overnight at a St. Francis office get a toothbrush, new pajamas and their own blankets and pillows, said St. Francis vice president Diane Carver. The idea is to stick with normal bedtime routines while placement workers elsewhere in the office call around to find actual homes.
At the KVC Kansas Topeka office, volunteers painted Disney-, space- and sports-themed murals around the office. A freezer in their Olathe office’s kitchen is packed with donated meals that social workers can heat up for overnight kids. Crayon marks along an office wall show that kids have been taking some artistic license with the building, and bookshelves in a kid-friendly room are packed with movies for the nearby TV.
But when kids are sleeping there, said DCF secretary Gina Meier-Hummel, contractors and the state must do better.
“It’s not an acceptable practice,” she said. “It’s not a practice that we endorse — nor should we plan for it in the future.”
Her agency and the foster care agencies that find homes are scrambling to increase the beds available for kids — hoping contractors find something better than a couch at midnight. They’re redoubling efforts to place kids with relatives or other trusted adults, recruiting more foster parents and pushing for more beds in shelters and psychiatric treatment facilities.
A fix won’t come quickly. Training foster parents takes time. So does opening and licensing beds in residential facilities. The number of kids entering foster care, in the meantime, is still trending up.
So KVC Hospitals, which runs the psychiatric residential treatment facilities KVC oversees, has been setting up crisis centers. Those collections of short-term beds offer a more home-like emergency placement than a couch or futon in an office.
The company opened one in Hays in September and was scheduled to open a second in Kansas City, Kansas, in January, though that’s now been pushed back until spring.
Those crisis centers aren’t funded by KVC Kansas’ contract with the Department for Children and Families. Once they’re up and running, KVC can get the same kind of reimbursement for kids sleeping in them that it would get for other foster placements, but KVC Hospitals is picking up the tab to get them set up.
The state, too, is looking to increase emergency beds. Enhancements to DCF’s budget proposed last month would put nearly $1 million toward emergency foster care placements over the next two years. That money could pay for beds held open for kids who come in unexpectedly and can’t be placed immediately.
DCF and its contractors are also recruiting more foster families to take kids with a variety of needs, Meier-Hummel said. The state launched a $500,000 campaign to recruit more foster parents last year.
Increasing the capacity of an overloaded system, though, won’t fix the problem.
“It’s going to take a government-wide response,” said Christie Appelhanz. “That means the executive branch, the legislative branch, the judicial branch, and, quite frankly, it’s going to take increased funding.”
Madeline Fox is a reporter or the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.
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